Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Crêt de la Neuve (No 45)

Crêt de la Neuve is one of my favourite peaks in the Jura. It's the highest peak on the Chemin des Crêtes transjurassien hiking trail between Mont Tendre (No 6) and La Dôle (No 7); it has one of the best views of Lac Leman and the Alps along the entire "Balcon du Léman"; and it's right above our home-town of St George. We've hiked up there before, in the summer of 2009 (July), when we had glorious sunny weather and views to die for; but today we just had itchy feet. And a trail straight-out of town, and up the mountainside, sounded like a great idea for a public holiday (Easter Monday, 2012).

Lis and I at the top of Crêt de la Neuve in 2009, 
after we'd hiked in from the Col de Marchairuz.

Lis checking-out Mont Blanc from Crêt de la Neuve, July 2009.

We left the car in the car park in St George at 10am, and headed west out of town towards Les Devants - "the in-fronts" - as the first slopes of the Jura nestled behind our village are called. Before we left the village, we took some time to have a look at the marvellous wooden statues sculpted by local St George craftsman Paul Monney. There are something like 60 of his sculptures scattered all around this part of the Jura.

 Leaving St George. Who's that taking my photo?

Passing by the St George fromagerie.

We hadn't got far into the forest before we were treated to a fantastic, tumultuous drumming display by a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) - one of the three species of woodpeckers that we get in our neck of the woods. (The others being the Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor). It turned-out to be a great day for wildlife spotting, as we saw lots of birds (including Red Kites and Common Buzzards), red and black squirrels, and even a red deer (Cervus elephus).

 The only "wildlife" that stayed still long enough for me to get a photograph 
- a sedate-looking, slow-moving (but very colourful) bracket fungi.

We soon reached the forest road that leads from Longirod to the distant and isolated La Neuve farmhouse (located on the other - northwest - side of the Jura crest, overlooking the Combe des Amburnex), so we turned right and took a trail less-travelled - a green-marked hiking track that led us straight-up the mountainside through the magnificent, silent, post-winter forest. ("La Neuve" actually means an isolated alpine house).

 Lis on the "green trail" to Crêt de la Neuve.

The "green trail" was a delightful track, mostly winding through the beech and fir forest, occasionally skirting alpine pastures (near Les Frasses, 1244m), and centuries-old dry-stone walls which served greater function in years past when pastoralism was the predominant industry in this neck of the woods. These days it's forestry and tourism which prevail, and the trees (which were largely chopped-out during the wood- and charcoal-hungry 18th and 19th centuries) have reclaimed the mountainsides and made the old walls largely redundant.

Lis atop a moss-covered, crumbling dry-stone wall in the midst of the forest.

At about the same time the forests disappeared, so too did much of the wildlife, with deer, chamois, lynx, wolves, bears and a host of other critters hunted to local extinction around the same time. Fortunately, with the return of the forests (and 20th century conservation efforts), most of these have either reappeared, or been reintroduced, so it was a buzz when we spotted a red deer close to us among the trees.

Another interesting wildlife phenomenon in this area is the presence of the largest, and highest density, "supercolony" of wood ants (fourmis des bois) - believed to be the largest in Europe, and possibly the world, and sufficiently intriguing to have attracted David Attenborough and a BBC film crew up here in May 2005 to film an episode of Life in the Undergrowth. Fourmis des bois are "good" wood ants, as opposed to Fourmis du bois ... which are the termites that chew down your house.

The ants - which I believe are Formica paralugubris - build amazing nests up to a metre and a half high, mostly out of fallen spruce needles, leaf litter and other forest debris. They then connect hundreds of these nests by kilometres of ant trails - which wind their way through the forests between the Col du Marchairuz and Crêt de la Neuve.

Checking-out one of the famous anthills of the Jura.

Life in the Undergrowth was a great hit on TV, captivating world-wide audiences and winning a host of awards - including the famous "Golden Panda" award (which is sponsored by WWF) at the Wildscreen Film Festival. An amusing anecdote from Sir David's visit to the Jura centred around the fact that just as they were ready to roll the specially-built, quarter-million-pound camera designed to squeeze into the daily life of Jura ant colonies, Sir David realized that for the first time in his 50-year wildlife documentary programming and filming career, he had forgotten to pack his signature light-blue shirt. Apparently he dashed off to the shops, and soon returned in a new blue shirt, the only one he could find on short notice ... which turned-out to be a "nice blouse" from a women's clothing store nearby. He apparently laughed it off by saying "There's no difference on screen."

With not a light blue shirt in sight, at around 11.30 we broke through the forest into a clearing at a place called Le Crêt de la Daille - where the residents of Longirod had erected a cute little shelter in June 2011 for picnics and barbecues - just where the road to La Neuve enters the pastures of Petit Pré de Rolle.

Lis getting settled at our lunch stop.

The sun was trying its hardest to break through the weak layer of cloud above us, while a few lost (and possibly last) snowflakes drifted slowly to Earth around us. We took advantage of our first viewpoint of the Alps to have an early lunch (multi-cereal baguettes with local cheese and wild boar sausage; and some trail-mix of nuts and dried fruit; all washed-down with hot tea). Unfortunately our views were nothing like we'd had the last time we were up here, but it was still quite amazing - with the Alps sandwiched between two cloud layers on the horizon.

Lis admiring the view of the Alps. Alas, no Mont Blanc today.

Refuelled, we headed past the Petit Pré de Rolle summer farmhouse (still abandoned for winter) and tromped our way across alternating patches of snow, pasture, mud and rock.

 The Petit Pré de Rolle farmhouse (1385m).

Reaching the summit involved scaling a series of false "highest crests" - which looked like the top, until you reached them, when another crest would appear just ahead of you. However it didn't take long to get across these and reach the true summit. Before we knew it, we were standing under the barren, flag-less flagpole at the top of the Crêt de La Neuve. ("Neuve" means "new" and is thought to have been used in this location to apply to a newly cleared alpine pasture hundreds of years ago). We scaled the nearby true summit (at 1494m) which is "adorned" by a huge cross ... which seemed an appropriate location for a commemorative Easter photograph.

He's not the messiah. He's just a naughty boy.

Lis in a more respectful (respectable?) pose at the summit of Crêt de la Neuve.

The residents of Longirod first hauled a cross up here more than 70 years ago (1941). It was gradually worn-down by Mother Nature and, despite being patched-up in 1971 and 1981, was on the verge of total collapse when it was dismantled in late 2010. A new 4.5 metre cross was erected in May 2011 - once again by the residents of Longirod, about 30 of whom made their way up the mountain to commemorate the occasion with the municipal authorities and representatives of the parish.

Another group of "locals" who regularly make their way to the top are from another nearby town - Marchissy - which for the last 40 years or more has organized a 16km footrace to the summit. The Trophée du Crêt de La Neuve, which is organized by the Marchissy Ski Club, involves a lung-pumping 860 metre ascent, and is run every October.

The other "permanent" landmark at the Crêt is the stone observation deck and its flagpole - with its usual colourful red-and-white Swiss flag fluttering at the top. Alas, there was no flag today, as the Crêt flags, like the cross, are regularly ravaged by the near-Arctic wind-blast conditions we get along the crest of the Jura.

 The observation deck at Crêt de la Neuve (sans flag).

We checked-out the observation deck and its fantastic, ornate information display panels - which pointed-out all of the alpine peaks of the Savoy Alps from the Rhone valley in the east to beyond Geneva in the west. The three-panel panorama was crafted by Sylvie Dobler of Chaumont and erected by the "Association for the Interests of Longirod" on the 12th of September 1993.

The triptych at Crêt de la Neuve.

Unfortunately, almost all of the peaks of the distant Alps were obscured, although we could make out a few, including the scene of one of our all-time favourite walks - the Dents du Midi.

The semi-obscured Dents du Midi.

Closer to home, looking northeast along the Chemin des Crêtes transjurassien hiking trail we could see Mont Tendre - the first summit we had tackled in this "Jura Mountain Rambling" project.

Mont Tendre from Crêt de la Neuve.

I took one last photograph - of the trail sign bearing the altitude of Crêt de la Neuve - and then we headed back downhill. One interesting bit of information on the trail sign was a notation about the Chemin des Crêtes transjurassien being a part of a mega-trail from the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border - all the way to Germany. Hmmm, maybe another project, sometime in the future.

Soon after we left the summit, Lis spotted a red rag lying on a steep slope below us in the forest, which turned-out to be the tattered and weathered Swiss flag from the summit. I scampered down to where it had come to rest at the top of a small cliff, and happily retrieved it as a cool souvenir of this fabulous walk.

The road down from Crêt de la Neuve, 
looking towards the distant Dents du Midi.

We then enjoyed a casual stroll down the mountainside, following the Longirod road until we had to turn east to get back to St George. Along the way we again passed-by the Petit Pré de Rolle farmhouse, where, in 1999, somewhere just east of here, a group of cavers ventured 3,600 metres into one of the famous Jura karst caves; their exploration involving an impressive 487 metre vertical drop. While underground, they dropped a tracer into an underground river that disappeared into the abyss at the end of the cave - which showed-up in the Rivière de Mille et Une Nuits ("River of a Thousand and One Nights"), the source for the Aubonne and Toleure rivers further down the mountainside.

Further down the road we passed the winter-dormant Les Frasses farmhouse (1244m), which had one of those characteristic, intricate, stone-walled Jura stockyards which are dotted around these mountain pastures. We'd already passed a couple of these higher on the mountainside, which I couldn't go past without taking a photo.

The farmhouse at Les Frasses.

Jura stockyard circa 1900.

We finally got back to St George at about 2pm, four hours after we'd departed ... making it about a three-hour walk, with another hour spent dining, sight-seeing and photographing. It had been another fabulous Jura walk.

I'll leave you with a couple more photos from St George:

Carved seat in the main street.

Carving of St George and the dragon by local sculptor Paul Monney outside the St George commune office.

  The sign outside the Cavalier - the local auberge.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Crêt de la Neuve (No. 45) 1495m

  • Crêt de la Neuve was "immortalized" by an American musician from Boston named Craig Shepard who passed by the peak on the 20th July 2005, during a trans-Switzerland journey of discovery. Along the way he composed a number of tunes, all inspired by the environment he was in, written in the morning and played on his "pocket" trumpet in the evening. The song was released on Shepard's 2011 album "On Foot", which also featured three other Jura tracks: Grottes de l'Orbe, Vallorbe, and St Cergue. The promo piece for Crêt de la Neuve said: "Christian Wolff's melodica ... reverberates in a wistful manner that somehow evokes the titular perch above Lake Geneva, the breeze across the Swiss Cross somehow summoned by his coy instrument".
  • Our town of St George - first named as St Georgii de Essartinis in 1153 and later called Saint-Georges d'Essertines in the 19th century - gets its name from the saint, or one of several saints of this name, including "a prince of Cappadocia, who was arrested as a Christian in Nicomedia, imprisoned and then martyred at Lyddia (Lod), near Tel Aviv in 303, where tradition says that he fought a dragon. Name from the Greek gheorghios, "peasant". (Source: Noms de lieux de Suisse romande, Savoie et environs, henrysuter.ch)
  • According to the team that operates the Peakery.com website, Crêt de la Neuve is the 6,317th highest mountain in Switzerland.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Colomby de Gex (No 5)

Saturday March 31 was a gloriously sunny day in the Jura, meaning the last vestiges of snow still shining along the peaks and ridges would soon disappear. It cried-out for one last snowshoe expedition to another summit: the fifth-highest in the Jura: Le Colomby de Gex (sometimes incorrectly called "Le Colombier de Gex").

 We left our trusty Subaru in the parking area on the side of the road near the first hairpin bend above Fontaine Napoleon (at 1175m), on the road heading-up to the Col de la Faucille from Gex, just over the border in France. This is a popular starting point for this walk - just near a small cluster of houses called Le Pailly. We shouldered our packs at about 10am, and immediately plunged into the forest on a narrow leaf-littered trail, feeling fresh and invigorated by the tangy forest odours, and the masses of bear's garlic bursting through the forest floor. Birds were singing everywhere. It was going to be a glorious day.

We soon intersected another trail - the Sentier de le Vie de Chaud - a steep track that took us upslope through the last of the forest and onto the rugged and rocky Jura escarpment above.

 Le Vie de Chaud.

This proved to be more precarious, and more uncomfortable, than we would have liked - mainly due to a series of about eight avalanche flows that had streamed over the path. We gingerly climbed our way over each of them, cognizant that a Swiss snowshoer had been killed here by an avalanche in December 2008. Apparently he and his wife were heading-up le Vie de Chaud when an avalanche screamed down through the trees from the upper slopes of Petit Montrond above them. He was slammed into a tree and died instantly. His wife was seriously injured. You can imagine our relief when we eventually made it out of the danger zone and emerged from the forest. Immediately we were treated to a great view of Lac Léman and the Alps ... and three or four chamois scampering around the rocks nearby. It was the closest we had ever got to chamois in the wild.

Oops, didn't see one of these on the way up.

As we got close to the top of the ridgeline we came across a sign saying the trail was a known avalanche area, and thus was closed between December 1 and April 15. Somehow we had missed seeing a similar sign (that I assume was at the bottom of the trail), but fortunately we were here now, so we pressed-on and over onto the "Balcon du Léman". There are a few places around the rim of the Jura ridgeline that are called the Balcon du Léman - places that provide a grandstand view of the lake and the arc of Alps on the other side.

Mont Blanc and all of the peaks were on fine display, above a layer of haze that hung over the lake and Geneva. We could even see the Matterhorn in the far distance.

 View from the "Balcon du Léman".

We made our way over a series of crests and swales to Petit Montrond - 1534 metres and number 33 on our list of the highest summits in the Jura. The summit is dominated by a radio and TV broadcast aerial and transmitting station - which serves Geneva and much of French-speaking Switzerland. A popular location for skiers (there is a ski lift to the top from Mijoux - on the western, French side - and the Col de la Faucille), Petit Montrond also has a very grand-looking restaurant and dining balcony, which triggered a mental note to come back here sometime in high summer and enjoy a meal with one of the most spectacular panoramic views in the world. The place was deserted today, with everything shut-up - due to the ski season having finished, but the summer walking trails still covered with too much snow - and thus not yet popular. In a couple of months this place will be swarming with day-walkers, Jura Trail trekkers and other hikers and "pic-nickers".

The TV/radio tower and restaurant at Petit Montrond.

We took a few commemorative photographs, then headed southwest along the Balcon du Léman ridgeline towards our next Jura peak - Montrond (1596m high, and number 18 on our list of Jura summits). Signs reminded us that we were walking in the Réserve Naturelle "Haute Chaine du Jura" where there are lots of things you can't do.

 I think the third symbol says "no vomiting" in the reserve after hard climbing.

This area is apparently also riddled with deep karst holes which can be dangerous at this time of the year through being covered-over by snow, but fortunately we didn't encounter any of these. However, we did see lots of lovely purple and white crocuses, and the first leaves of millions of daffodils that are going to put-on quite an explosion of yellow in a couple of weeks when they're all in flower.

 Lis in a patch of crocuses.

Other than that, the Jura crestline was decidely still post-winter, with patches of snow, sometimes still more than a metre deep, dominating the landscape, and sparse or stunted alpine vegetation.

 Lis heading south along the Jura Crest trail.

 We followed the ridgeline - often just metres away from the steep cliffs and escarpment on our left - that fell precipitously away to the valley floor 250 metres below. It was now about mid-day and, with the gloriously sunny conditions, we had fabulous views on both sides of us. We could see far into France on the western side.

 Le Crozat (1484m).

We stopped briefly near the abandoned-for-winter farmhouse "Le Crozet" to pull on our snowshoes so we could climb the last, slippery, ice-and-snow-covered slope to the summit of Montrond. Montrond appears to be one of those multi-topped peaks, so we made our way up and down over two of them - one at at 1542m, then a second at 1544m - to the third (and highest), at 1596m. Montrond (or Mont Rond) literally means "Round Mountain" - being from Latin mons rotundus, and old French riond, reond.

The view from Montrond - with Petit Montrond and La Dole in the background.

We found a place out of the wind - just below the ridgeline and just above the cliff-face - where we pulled-on our jackets and settled down to a fabulous lunch whilst gazing-out at the amazing view provided by the lake and Alps. Lunch spots don't get much better than this!

 Looking back at the summit of Montrond (and Petit Montrond).

Filled with hot tea, cheese, bread and fruit, we continued on our journey along the ridge, over two more un-named peaks - one at 1614m and another at 1606m - to the Pas de l'Echine - a small col at the foot of Colomby de Gex.

The view back along the Jura ridgeline from le Pas de l'Echine.

Looking towards Mont Blanc and the Alps.

Once again, we pulled-on our snowshoes ... and slowly made our way-up our main destination for the day - the fifth-highest summit in the Jura - Colomby de Gex (1688m). First named in 1844, the summit gets its name from the town of Gex below, and the French word "colombe" or "colombier" which means a place where doves roost, i.e., in a high place. (Colomby in this case is derived from the Latin word for dove: columbus). Another hypothesis is that it is derived from the old French word colombe or Latin columen, columna - meaning a peak, a pinion or piller. Both options make good sense.

The last slope up to the top of Colomby de Gex.

It didn't take us long to get to the top -  where we took more commemorative pix and had a nip of Marc from my "hip flask emergency survival kit" to celebrate the occasion. A French hiker tuned-up while we were there and kindly offered to take a pic of the two of us at the summit.

Near the small pylon at the top of Colomby de Gex.

Looking back at Montrond and Petit Montrond from Colomby de Gex.

Somewhere up here is meant to be a tomb of a famous Swiss aviator (Ferdinand Fluckiger) who crashed into the mountain, and died, on a foggy day in January 1932 (the 26th). Just days before, he had  completed an historic flight around the rim of the Mediterranean, but on this day, close to home, he was caught-out by bad weather conditions while crossing the Jura and, in turning-back, misjudged the height of the mountain and crashed just below the summit of Colomby de Gex. He was killed instantly, and his body found two days later. I couldn't see the tomb anywhere, and assume that it was somewhere nearby, buried under the snow.

It was now about 2pm and we were at our furthermost point from where we had started our hike, so we commenced our return journey, dropped quickly below the ridge-top, and headed on a new route - southeast down the mountainside towards the "Plain du Pays de Gex".

Lis heading down the escarpment below Colomby de Gex.

We skirted around some precipitous cliffs and soon found ourselves on the shady side of a southward spur from the ridgeline, where we entered into some sugary-soft snowfields and forest leading up to, and beyond, the Chalet de Branveau.

The trail took us right past the foot of Montchanais (1446m and number 61 on our list), however we decided that it will just have to wait for another day - when we have a little more time and energy. It proved to be a good decision, as the next hour or so proved to be pretty "hairy" ... as we slipped and slid our way down the mountainside on a difficult-to-follow (and times, non-existent) trail. Masses of snow and, in a couple of places, avalanche debris obliterated any trail markers or tracks of previous walkers which might have marked the route.

 Cutting our way across an avalanche flow.

Even so, whenever we were out in the open, we still enjoyed some magnificent views - with the Jura ridgeline now rising above us on our left, and the lake and Alps on our right ... although we were spending most of our time looking down, watching carefully where we were placing our feet.

At one stage, in the dense forest at the western end of Creux de l'Envers, the trail became faint ... and then completely disappeared, leaving us in a kind of "no mans land" on a steep and slippery slope covered with snow, mud and forest debris. We decided that going back was probably going to be just as hard as going forward - so we blazed a new trail straight down the mountainside alongside a bubbling river of meltwater - Le Torrent du Journans. As I expected, we eventually encountered the snow-covered track that led towards Chalet des Platières, a waypoint on our route "home". By now we were both completely exhausted, and our boots were sodden from tramping through thick snow, mud and meltwater. Our thoughts began turning to hot baths, dry clothes and room-temperature wine.

Conversation dried-up, along with our lips and parched mouths, and we stuck our heads down and tramped back towards Pailly. After passing by la Chalet de Platières (an old farmhouse which dates back to 1411) and La Quible, we eventually made it back to where we'd parked the car. It was now almost 5.30pm - seven and a half hours after we'd set-out that morning.

We were both tired, but it had been a great walk, with some of the most magnificent countryside and scenery we'd ever encountered ... and all right in our own backyard. You've got to love the Jura!

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Colomby de Gex (No. 5) 1688m
  • Montrond (No. 18) 1596m
  • Petit Montrond (No. 33) 1534m

  • Colomby de Gex is the 204th highest mountain in the Rhone Alps, and the 1,559th highest mountain in France (Peakery).
  • Montrond is the 232nd highest mountain in the Rhone Alps, and the 1,643rd highest mountain in France.
  • Petit Montrond is the 261st highest mountain in the Rhone Alps, and the 1,757th highest mountain in France.